By Barry Gilbert
If you’re lucky, at some point over multiple days or multiple stages at a music festival, some act will open your eyes and knock you over.
The first two nights of KDHX-sponsored Twangfest 16 have featured great music by artists who have met or exceeded expectations, based on either reputation or past performance: Kelly Hogan, Pokey LaFarge and Wussy, at the top of the list. But the band that has obliterated expectations is Humming House, which played Wednesday night after local opener Prairie Rehab and in support of hometowners LaFarge and his old-timey South City Three.
Nashville, Tenn.-based Humming House is made up of five seemingly disparate parts: Celtic-music fan and singer/songwriter Justin Wade Tam, soul singer Kristen Rogers, classically trained fiddler and college professor Mike Butera, bluegrass mandolinist Joshua Wolak and classical composer/bassist Ben Jones.
Together, they are … what? Irish jam band? Bluegrass porch stompers? Acoustic rockers? R&B interpreters? Yes, all of the above.
Humming House’s self-titled debut CD was certainly an indicator of how good the band is, but it gave scant hint of its range. After four songs including album standouts “Cold Chicago” “Stop Me Still” and “Mrs.Wurley,” Rogers stepped up to the mike and belted out Bill Withers’ soul classic “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
Three songs later – one featuring Tam on the St. Louis wedding-inspired “Tower (Grove) Park” – Rogers was at it again, paying tribute to Whitney Houston with “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”
But Rogers wasn’t done: After three more songs, she broke out some hip-hop for the Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic” that was played, as everything else was, with acoustic instrumentation punched up with Jones on kick drum and Rogers on a variety of percussion gadgets.
It was an eye-opening performance by musicians who have an understanding of pacing and dynamics, and the chops and stage presence that makes us hope for a speedy return and a headlining gig of their own.
Moving from Schlafly’s Tap Room on Wednesday to Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room on Thursday brought a different, and louder, vibe. After a solid opening by St. Louis’ Pretty Little Empire, Deano and the Purvs – the spawn of Chicago roots bands the Waco Brothers and the Meat Purveyors – amped up for a set of country and rockabilly flavored rock ‘n’ roll.
Deano Waco – aka Dean Schlabowske of Jon Langford’s Waco Brothers – and Jo Walston of the bluegrass Meat Purveyors shared the vocals backed by a combination of players from each band. The six players roared through songs including “Untouchable,” “House at the End of the Line,” “Vacant Lot,” a riff on Bill Monroe’s “Little Red Shoes” and “World’s Oldest Man.”
Deano and the Purvs were propelled by Waco Brothers bassman Alan Doughty, all arms and legs and energy, playing six notes where most would play but one.
Closing the night was the classy Chicago singer Kelly Hogan. The veteran performer, whose new album “I Like to Keep Myself in Pain” is one of the best of the year, was a picture of mixed messages: black jacket-and-skirt power suit from the knees up, sparkly ankle socks and bright red high-heel sandals below.
Hogan had exceptional support by a suit-clad band that included album producer Scott Ligon on keys, Wacos drummer Joe Camarillo, bassist Casey McDonough and guitarist Jim Elkington. She performed several tracks from the new CD, which boasts writing contributions from Robbie Fulks, Robyn Hitchcock, Jeff Tweedy, M. Ward, Vic Chestnutt and Langford, among others.
Hogan’s own compositions held their own, especially the new song “Golden,” written for Hogan’s pal and fellow Chicago-based singer Neko Case. A moving encore of Stephin Merritt’s “Papa Was a Rodeo,” Free Design’s “Kites are Fun” and Chris Scruggs’ “Sing Your Tune” sent the crowd home smiling.
But between Deano and Hogan was the act people had come to see: Cincinnati’s Wussy, led by Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker. One of those bands people either love without question or just don’t get, Wussy had the crowd pressed to the stage and jumping for joy.
All tattooed and rumpled, Wussy roared through new tracks from its “Strawberry” CD, including the B-52-ish “Pulverized,” “Grand Champion Steer” and “Waiting Room,” plus older favorites “Airborne,” “Muscle Cars” and the closer, “Shunt.”
It was the band’s first St. Louis appearance in five years, and it was clear both Wussy and its fans had a lot of pent-up longing to satisfy.